Learning — and how critique-based “learning” can fail

I stopped saying “things should happen in fiction that matter to the protagonist” because fixing that would require a rewrite to make things actually happen between all the ‘character looks around at things.’ Rewriting was a forbidden topic in my Masters of Creative Writing program.

Capturing the reader’s attention with the foundational structures of story is very much like capturing the king in a chess game. Each piece on the board moves differently than all the others but with strategy, they can work together to produce a result that is worth the reader’s investment of spare time and spending money.

One of the best anime we saw over the past decade is March comes in like a Lion. It was the story of a young, professional shogi player who liked playing shogi with his dad, but didn’t really see himself as a pro player until his parents die and he goes to stay with his father’s friend who was a shogi master and playing the game, in the kid’s mind, was the way to his guardian’s affections.

The kid is good at it. Not amazeballs by any stretch, but good and he learns to get better over the course of the show. He doesn’t become the best shogi player in Japan and he’s not even playing in the last match, but his journey is the most significant one of the series on an emotional level.

I loved it because it shows what real talent looks like at a professional level. Professional players were constantly honing their skills or gently sliding down the ranks as they stopped wanting “it” so much.

Before I turned twenty-five and realized if I still had to learn how to write, I’d learned a lot about writing in the doing of it that would have been obvious to a writer with a few critique sessions in them. I had learned to write without any critique at all. It wasn’t until I was twenty-five that I realized my learning was full of more tunnels than cartoon Swiss Cheese.

Between the ages of 25 and 35, I learned almost nothing other than other people were right. They were right that it made a huge difference whether a scene was shown to the reader or whether what was important about the scene was just told to them through dialogue. It mattered that the conflict the character faced was big enough that without changing something about the plot or themselves, the character would probably fail if they tried to overcome it.

Theme was important. That was a massive blow. When I couldn’t control the theme any more than I could the weather, you couldn’t convince me a theme was even necessary for any work other than the highest of highbrow literary work. Even then, it was still mostly bunk. Imagine my horror when I realized theme is the story’s compass and heartbeat. Without one, the work is just a story about a character that does stuff.

Like a young chess player, I needed every bit of talent I’d been given to learn how to use the skill other people have acquired. I look at my body of work and see the development of skills I didn’t even think I needed. There is no foundational structure of story that should be looked at as optional or unnecessary if building a full experience worth the reader’s time is the desired end result.

Thirty years ago, only the new writers sitting down believed that ‘there are no rules’ meant no rules existed. Today, they’re being taught as they sit down that no rules exist.

And the pedagogist I spoke to will probably always wonder why I laughed when she told me that their program’s pedagogy was “peer review.” Thinking that a peer review critique group in which any opinion that’s not “this work is perfect” is rigorously stamped out makes as much sense as a UBC’s Provost thinking “gentle” was a pedagogy.

The Provost doesn’t believe his program has to meet federal quality assurance guidelines. The UBC doesn’t believe policies need to be followed if they’re not also against the law. The fact my MFA believes that writers don’t need to learn the craft is just on par with the experience.

Any creator at a professional level is either learning or coasting. The UBC wants writers to believe they can coast their way into writing at a professional level. It would be a funny joke if it didn’t waste a student’s tuition, time, and dreams.

Critique groups are very good at getting the members of the group up to the same level as the average writer in it quickly. But the lessons are limited only to what the group does well. If a writing group only excels at writing scenes in which the character spends most of their time looking around at the world they’re living in, that’s what they’re going to practice how to do over and over again.

The part of the story the commercial reader of fiction cares about is the moving parts that happen between all the characters looking around. And if your critique group (or MFA) has decided that the emotionally engaging parts of the story aren’t as important as perfect description, that’s exactly what’s going to be learned.

Today’s writers must learn for themselves that craft is important despite being taught that they are right to think that it has no value. But teaching that craft has no value appeals to the learner’s confirmation bias. Tomorrow’s post is going to show that’s exactly what the piece of furniture set out to achieve with their methodology.

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